Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and Sir Simon Rattle speak to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden about the needs of UK orchestras post-lockdown

Sir Simon Rattle to DCMS’ Oliver Dowden: “We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs.”

I read Sir Simon Rattle’s Times interview first thing on Sunday morning in bed as soon as I woke up. Take it from me this is not the best strategy. Not right now at least. Top line message from Rattle: orchestras will go to the wall; everything’s fucked.

Later in the day during a telephone chat with a pal of old, I glibly say that reading Rattle’s interview should be reserved until later in the day. It’s suggested to me that a similar strategy is being adopted by the theatre world to lay things on the line, to get the attention that’s needed to move things along.

I get this. And I agree with it. Later in the day I pick up an email pointing me in the direction of a meeting Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Sir Simon Rattle all have had with DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden last week to talk about what the UK orchestral sector needs right now. Put simply – other countries are moving already to make live performance happen because a) they’ve supported the arts during this period and b) they’re collaborating to find workable pragmatic interim solutions; we want to work with you; help us.

Combined with the Saturday appearance of Nicola Benedetti, CBSO general manager Stephen Maddock, Chi-chi Nwanoku, and Southbank’s Director of Music Gillian Moore on Radio 3’s Music Matters, this feels like a more concerted and coordinated effort than in recent weeks. It certainly reads more explicitly than the joint open letter Petrenko, Karabits, Brabbins, Jurwoski, and Sir Mark Elder put out last week. Why wouldn’t they all coalesce around one thing? Or did the emotive former prompt the more specific and practical latter?

Most compelling in Rattle’s contribution is the experiences he shares with other European orchestras right now. And specifically the idea of distancing amongst the band in a performance space. This tallies with another piece of news I picked up from Bamberg Symphony who in May were testing the reach of aerosols in a performance space. Spoiler: turns out wind instruments aren’t spreading the virus anywhere near as far as the two-metre distancing rule might lead you to believe. Bamberg Symphony plays host to the Mahler Conducting Competition from 29th June (albeit behind closed doors and streamed live on YouTube) as a result.

In this way, its possible to see the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people dependent not on the development of a vaccine or the reduction of the R, but instead reliant on those with the power to make small changes to listen to spokespeople from the sector, and for those to be persuasive. Seen from this perspective, the return to live performance should be driven by those with an eye on the science and who can come up with workable solutions. Is the UK industry doing that? I’m genuinely not sure. I’ve not seen obvious evidence of that.

Meeting statement in full

We know you know the terrifying hardship and uncertainty the classical music sector faces. That an entire, complex ecosystem of musicians, composers, behind the scenes creators, managers, technicians, festivals, venues, orchestras, choirs, education & outreach leaders, publishers, marketers etc. are not only unable to work, but unlike many other industries, have absolutely no concept of a timeline to work towards. It is making any semblance of getting back to work, and saving our industry from collapse impossibly and increasingly hard.

However, we are aware that you know the phenomenal contribution arts and culture brings to our GDP, £10.8 billion in GVA (source Arts Council England).

As you’ve already referenced today, we know you recognise the weight and importance our cultural landscape holds, both worldwide and to the British public.

But all of us representing the classical sector today are here to say that with the right financial support, and workable social distancing guidelines, our entire industry is united, ready, prepared, and desperate to get back to doing what we do best.

People all over the country are in need, people are in crisis. Classical music itself is steeped in history and tradition, but we are agile, dedicated and reactive. And we want to help ease people out of this impossibly difficult time. 

There are countless examples we could list of what people and organisations have already been doing, but hopefully you will have been keeping up to date with these.

Looking to the immediate future, there are so many areas of opportunity within which we can work with government, and there is so much we want to offer – individually and collectively. But we can only do so with the right support and collaboration.

We know we can provide national moments of unity and uplift, and a coming together of mass music participation and appreciation.

We can help be a vital part of the emotional and psychological recovery for ALL people of the UK, but in particular for our elderly and vulnerable population.

When unified, we can be an unbelievable force for developing creativity and resilience in our next generation through education.

We can deploy musicians in innovative ways, through digital and inventive performance spaces reaching people in all parts of the country.

And of course, our substantial and growing track record for using music to positive effect in mental health and wellbeing speaks for itself. 

We have all been humbled by this experience, and are more understanding of our role in society than ever.

Morale, creativity and energy will be needed from all walks of life to find ways out of this crisis. It’s not just about managing circumstances in a reactive and stagnant way – let us tap into the part of the brain artists and musicians use all the time. We problem-solve through creating new pathways, and the country desperately needs that right now. 

Please work with us!

But we need money, we need a clear timeline to work to, we need guidelines that are both safe and workable and we hear there’s plenty of evidence specifically pertaining to our industry we are simply not making use of, some of which Sir Simon Rattle speaks more on below. 

– We need meaningful collaboration with creative leaders in the digital field 
– We are willing and indeed desperate to collaborate with scientists and experts and leaders in all fields to ensure we’re on the front foot of what’s possible to do, safely
– We want to look seriously at workable proposals
– We need to work out a timeline and business model for venues. Unlike in many parts of Europe, our venues by and large cannot open without significant support
– And from now until the moment where they can viably open, we still need to be making music for people, wherever that may be. What about licensing agreements to perform in car parks, warehouses, parks, etc.?

What Sir Simon Rattle said DCMS’ Oliver Dowden on post-lockdown orchestral life

Sir Simon Rattle said: “Orchestras need to play and play soon. Like dance companies or footballers, we have to train. We are a collective. We can do a great deal even before we are back in public, but even then, we have to be match ready! However, without workable distancing plans, an orchestra as such will not be a possibility.

On this subject it has been a surprise even for us how little aerosols or droplets are emitted while playing wind instruments, considerably less than normal conversation, for instance. We would ask that wind distances are a generous two meters maximum, and strings just one meter. In this way some kind of return to playing would be practical. The latest Danish scientific calculations suggest 0.5 meters for strings and 1 meter for winds as a perfectly safe arrangement. 

Over the last two weeks I played my first orchestral music in over three months in two European cities: first in Munich, in a studio, very distanced, but with a whole string section followed by a wind section of 13. The winds were 3 metres distant from each other which was like sending smoke messages between mountains: but we played! In Prague we played with a full orchestra, not distanced as everyone had been tested in the previous three days. There was an audience of 500, all masked but sitting together, and most shockingly of all, we shook hands on stage, something I had almost forgotten how to do!

Two different cities with different solutions: but both with scientific underpinning and immense care. And although both cities are further in their COVID journeys, the science remains the same. The aerosols move in the same way wherever they are in the world, which is why I would beg the UK to take note of the very thorough investigations from all over the world, rather than starting from the beginning. In other words, deal with the necessities of orchestral distancing not just the superstitions.

Orchestral rehearsal venues are willing and ready to transform into modern film and recording spaces which can follow the guidelines – but only if the guidelines are not impossible.

And finally, we will need some extra support over the next 12-18 months while we start performing to necessarily smaller, distanced audiences, and transition towards whatever our new world will be.  On the other side of all this, we will be alive and kicking and ready to take on new challenges once more.”

The resilience, work ethic and tenacity of people working in our industry is bountiful and deeply moving.

We really, really do not want to be left behind here, and have our world-class industry fall by the wayside whilst European cultural institutions are being protected.

We shouldn’t be penalised for our increased autonomy and our commercially viable business models. 

We don’t want more money for nothing. We don’t want our lights to stay dark. We want and need cash, support and guidelines in order to GIVE. To give to the public, to help people, to provide solace, comfort, uplift and art.

Fundamentally, we want to work with you. We don’t want to sit and complain and moan. We are poised and ready for collaboration, to urgently save our industry and its thousands and thousands of jobs – but to also help lift people out of this awful situation.

Returning to writing, content fatigue, self-care in isolation, Vaughan Williams and Benedetti’s Elgar

It’s the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to write. So, please treat this post as a way of breaking myself back into the process. An attempt to order a jumble of thoughts. The first in a pre-paid programme of self-facilitated therapy sessions.

On returning to writing

Writing now triggers all sorts of different thoughts and feelings, some of which make the practise almost impossible. A list of those thoughts presents itself.

  1. There’s nothing to say about classical music right now
  2. Your copy will ramble
  3. Your copy always rambles
  4. You bring way too much of yourself to your copy
  5. You make everything about you
  6. You take ages to get to the point
  7. There is no event everyone is coalescing around
  8. People don’t want to be reminded of what they don’t have
  9. You have an over-inflated idea of your own importance
  10. Shut the fuck up

There are some truisms in here. Even in the first two paragraphs points four, five and six are borne out. Watch the detractors rub their hands together with glee at that one.

Importantly, is the question of where these thoughts originate and what their effect is.

In coaching terms I know where those phrases originate. The effect is creative gas-lighting.

To bring oneself to ones writing – whether it’s literally using the first person in one’s copy, or drawing on first-hand experience or turns of phrase is for some a sign of weakness or exclusivity. I have over the past three or four weeks felt guilty for my go-to creative framework that is second-nature because of the very creative outlet – a blog – that helped develop my creativity.

One has to be robust. Rigorous. Recognise when the gas-lighting occurs and take steps to avoid it, so that what’s important is allowed the space it needs: advocacy whether it be in writing, audio, visual storytelling depends on knowledge, experience and emotional awareness. Bringing that to one’s creativity isn’t just a good thing, it’s a requirement. Otherwise, how do you connect with your audience?

Content fatigue? No, distractions

I read somewhere on social media that some considered classical music consumers were suffering content fatigue in response to the slew of digital endeavours embarked upon by various arts organisations amid COVID-19.

It’s true that there are a multitude of split screen lockdown performances which are very quickly blending into one another. One or two resonate more than others – the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Fairey Band’s Slane, and The Sixteen’s recent release.

These are successful not because they have cut-through, but because they have a narrative underpinning them or they anticipate and exploit an emotion experienced by a majority audience.

I remain convinced that offering free content like this is not detrimental to the music industry. It is a pragamatic and understandable reaction by a number of arts organisations and individual performers to unforeseen circumstances. This moment in time provides an excellent marketing opportunity and digital is king at raising awareness (even if it struggles to result in changed behaviours).

Raising awareness then is a baseline for arts organisations during this hiatus. But in doing this digital producers and artistic directors now (finally) appreciating what digital is for (even if they don’t understand its often contradictory complexities) need to remember that audiences (those that are lucky enough to work, as well as those interacting with family on handheld devices or over Zoom) are spending considerably more time at their laptops during this pandemic. Little wonder then that a bright blue sky, the warmth of the sun on your skin, or simple pleasures like plants, baking, or reading a book are compelling distractions over watching another video online.

It’s not that its content fatigue, it’s that there are bigger, more powerful and considerably more gratifying distractions right now. If you’re making content right now that content is competing with those distractions. That’s what you need to bear in mind.

Managing oneself in isolation

As the lockdown continues and will, let’s face it, for the rest of the year, some aspects of day to day life are coming more and more into focus.

Switching between tasks without the usual moving from location to location which marks out those different activities is, I think this week, as much a drain on energy reserves as being in receipt of a poorly phrased email, mean-spirited exchange on What’s App, or an extended video conference call.

My new personal canban – an experiment for managing a heavy workload

I was lucky enough to have lined up a month’s worth of project work for April which has now spilled into May. The to-do list is now getting reduced to a more manageable size which is a relief. At the same time I recognise I’ve been battling not only with the workload, but the intensity of it and the associated thought-processes (most of them negative) made more destructive by isolation-powered focus I’m working with.

Every-day now feels like a working day. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I never finish my day at the time I want to. I don’t really relax. I see how one could easily stumble into burn-out by continuing this way.

The C Major scale: bland as fuck

One of the solutions is to limit calls that interrupt the flow. My current bugbear is calls where things are just reported. It’s the meeting equivalent of listening to some playing a C Major scale – something I have to be present for but which doesn’t engage me as much as perhaps it does the person playing it. Isolation brings experiences like these into focus: our presence and participation in group experiences needs to be defined beforehand and ideally active too.

And the other thing that has become clearer for me in isolation is the need for empathy, praise and encouragement for others. Denied the serendipitous interactions with friends and associates, all of our exchanges are now pre-arranged, deliberate acts. If those are the only interactions you’re experiencing then the content of them needs to be well-intentioned, genuine, sincere, and long-lasting.

For the sake of everyone else’s mental wellbeing, we need to approach every interaction with positive intent. The great wave of compassion and empathy at the beginning of lockdown now feels like a distant memory. It feels as though we’re in danger of falling into the same habits we did before we were all locked away in our homes. Only the effect of some of those same habits is going to be more intensely felt by most of us because we have nowhere to escape to in response to them.

One undoubted and unexpected boon was participating in a coaching learning session with some peers Friday. Within minutes of the call starting it was as though all five of us were participating in a big collective breath. Space expanded all around. Implicit permission given to explore the imagination, to identify present needs. This kind of work is powerful. And needed. Especially in lockdown.

Where my musical tastes have rested recently

I began writing this section of the post listening to Vaughan Williams fifth symphony again – a work I’ve been returning to a lot this past week. The third movement largo with its opening call to prayer from the cor anglais: a reflection on those in need; a statement of hope that we will be there for them as we’d hope others will be for us. It, like the coaching learning session yesterday, has the power to release great waves of emotion whenever I hear it. Listening to it is like plunging into a very deep pool, not realising you needed to until your skin hits the water.

And Elgar’s Violin Concerto –  Nicky Benedetti’s release on Decca this week. An intimate recording of an epic statement. It’s an album I’ve had on preview for a few weeks now but haven’t (for the reasons I outlined at the top of the post) not got around to writing about. And yet returning to it again this week has reminded of one of the work’s most compelling characteristics: it’s complex and rewarding narrative. Reflecting on that now makes me almost regret the comparative cursory attention when discovering new music in the past. Giving attention seems like a nice thing to do right now. Space and attention to delve into detail.

Corinthian Chamber Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Nicola Benedetti

Back to the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night for the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra concert in a programme of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, also featuring last minute stand-in soloist, Grammy award-winning violinist Nicola Benedetti.

The QEH is fast becoming my favourite London venue. The acoustic gives each individual sound and texture the room to breath (please forgive the tortured analogy), meaning individual lines have more prominence than they normally would. For those of who love detail, that’s a treat.

I maybe doing conductor Michael Seal a disservice there however. It might be that exposed lines are as much to do with the acoustic as they are to do with his direction. Most notable – the trumpet descant in the second movement of the Symhonie fantastique giving an already lively waltz extra emotional intensity.

Seal doesn’t hang around, nor does he let the players in the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra get entrenched in sluggish speeds when things get a bit difficult under the fingers. There were plenty of opportunities when that could happen – the programme was ambitious and demanding for all. But Seal has an energy about him (along with a clear beat and expressive movements) that sweeps people along.

The opening Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien was all the more impressive as a concert opener because it was ‘on the nose’ pretty much from the start. Nicola Benedetti’s Tchaikovsky was a rich, folky, and magic affair, underpinned by a responsive orchestra fuelled by adrenaline and enthusiasm.

Given the choice between a professional band playing the same repertoire they’ve played for years or an amateur group playing music on their ‘big night’, I’ll always go for the latter. The energy levels are higher, the excitement is palpable, and the smiles on the platform make the whole experience considerably more gratifying.

A cracking night.

Classical music in modern life?

Two things dominated yesterday: the resurrection of the bloggers vs. ‘proper journalists’ debate, and the values that drive the Benedetti Foundation’s music sessions running in London this weekend.

I’m not going to link to the tweet that reignited the discussion about bloggers versus journos, nor mention the author. That’s not cricket or helpful. But quoting it is necessary.

Specialist classical music critics are proper journalists whose criticism we may not like but we grudgingly accept because they write well with education and experience. Self-appointed bloggers who publish criticism with no such background are a plague on our houses. Discuss.

The divisive message was oddly hurtful. Masking behind the guise of a discussion the underlying comment was clear: proper journos are the useful ones people should take notice of; the unpaid writers, influencers and commentators aren’t at all.

It read like a bit of an insult (though I did wonder I was making an assumption that it was referring to me and my considerably more active peers) – a sweeping dismissive statement which even when challenged appeared to achieve no more than the other party doubling-down on her original meanness.

It is that this was a discussion generated by a member of the classical music fraternity aimed squarely at those that seek to celebrate the art form that cut so deep. And more personally (and this is a common trait with me) the idea that even when evidence is shown of an injured party, that the response is to ignore as though to convey to people like me are those who are to blame for this exchange in the first place. Meanness with an extra dollop of gleeful meanness. Classic passive aggression. There’s a lot of it about.

What’s important isn’t so much my feelings during the exchange with the singer, rather the stark contrast with the other experience of the day: visiting one of the London sessions of the Benedetti Foundation’s current music education project.

Thursday night’s press conference featuring Nicky Benedetti discussing the Foundation’s vision and activities had already succeeded in bringing a lump to my throat. I’m an emotional sort at the moment anyway, but the sound of Benedetti’s spirited and impassioned detailing of what the Foundation is committed to (embedding music education back into the curriculum by making the experience of making music as universal as possible and as diverse as possible in terms of age, ability, and class) was powerful. So too the demonstration given by one small group of primary school kids illustrating how a series of simple participatory exercises can introduce the principles of movement, ryhthm, and pitch in a relatively short space of time.

None of what we saw in this demonstration was new to me. I recall experiencing the same thing as a kid thirty odd years ago.

It also triggered memories too of wanting to train as a teacher after I completed my music degree so I could give some of that joy back. It wasn’t to be thanks to one faceless wonder at the Department for Education back in 1991 who deemed the sexual assault I suffered as evidence that I would be a threat to children. Little wonder I still to this day have an issue with injustice.

On a broader level what has changed between then and now is the systemic destruction of music’s reputation in the curriculum, deeming the likes of the Benedetti Foundation not a nice-to-have but a necessity.

“That’s enough to get me angry,” I blurt out to Benedetti during the Q&A after the press conference, “Do you experience that anger? And if so how do you channel that into the obvious good of the Foundation?”

I can’t remember the exact words Nicky Benedetti responded with. Shoot me. I’m obviously not a proper journalist. But it was something along the lines of an admission that the emotional experience was the same, but that the challenge was to channel that into a sense of motivation that served the purpose of the endeavour. Showing best practise rather acting from a place of anger, bitterness or resentment.

I have over the past few weeks been unexpectedly challenged with a lot of things. Some of those things have pushed me to revisit difficult memories of the past in order to understand something of the present. Other challenges have brought on the anticipation of grief and all the associated feelings associated with it. And then there are the phenomenally challenging conversations where emotion needs to be left behind in order to mine for information. Such fierce conversations (meant in the context of the book of the same name by the way) are in themselves incredibly demanding both in the moment and afterwards.

But what links all of those experiences with what Benedetti said during her press conference is this idea of having to keep an eye on the goal, and aligning our thinking, feelings and actions with both our core values and the end goal. I don’t always do that. But I’m inspired to try harder at that because of Bendetti’s vision.

And the point of explaining all of this is because of the stark contrast between the two exchanges had on the same day.

The first triggered negativity, fear, and defensiveness. It was aggressive, accusatory, and disrespectful.

The second revealed a greater sense of purpose underlining the responsibility we all have to meet the challenge we all experience to channel our darker thoughts into a positive force: to draw on passion, to look with kindness, and to share.

What I’m struck by is how an unequivocal sense of purpose as articulated in the Benedetti Foundation which is in itself something intended to go beyond classical music, has at its heart a value that goes beyond classical music too. But that the only reason I’ve learned of it this week is because of classical music.

That is the power of classical music in modern life: music whose exponents are able to convey a message of hope that transcends the art form itself.

Whilst penning this I listened to clarinettist Mark van de Wiel playing Joseph Phibbs and Mozart’s clarinet concertos with the Philharmonia and London Chamber Orchestra.

Be sure to listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring Nicola Benedetti and Foundation tutors Jo and Elsa Bradley.

Nicola Benedetti and Wynton Marsali

Review: Nicola Benedetti plays Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Cristian Măcelaru

A rip-roaring fusion of musical styles documenting the travels of violinist Nicola Benedetti

Decca’s new release is a glorious recording of Marsalis’ captivating violin concerto, premiered in 2015, paired with his Fiddle Suite. The Fiddle Suite is good. Intense and intimate, hits the spot.

The focus on my attention has, since the first time I heard this recording, been on the concerto. Marsalis’ writing is efficient. Captivating drama abounds in a work brimming with tantalising textures and colours that evoke far-away lands.

The opening Rhapsody sees Marsalis combine a hint of English post-war pastoral style with Gershwin and a whiff of Copland, before easing the orchestra into a Bernstein homage replete with spidery solo line from the violin. A seemingly never-ending series of beautiful vignettes follows in a short space of time. Listening to this there are moments when I feel like I’m watching an MGM on a rainy Sunday afternoon. An cacophonous urban soundscape follows before we’re returned to something altogether more serene. A blissful harmonic indulgence nearly concludes the movement save for a whimsical jig squeezed into the final bars.

The second movement aptly-named Rondo Burlesque commands attention from the off with material which passes quickly through what feels like a subject, development and recapitulation all in the space of a few minutes. The candenza that follows – a dialogue between solo line and rhythm percussion is a gripping demonstration of Benedetti’s artistic commitment, and the ease at which she switches from one musical style to another. A tour de force performance of a gripping score. I’m sure I hear some rock reference in there somewhere towards the end.

Blues is a steaming theatrical number complete with vocal performances from the band and trombone imitations that concludes in what Marsalis describes as abject loneliness, but I prefer to look on as an introverts paradise.

And the last movement. A tub-thumping hootenanny that casts a shadow (albeit respectfully) on Copland’s Rodeo.

It amazes me the BBC Proms hasn’t snapped up this work yet. It must surely make an appearance in the next few years.

The concerto isn’t only a compositional triumph for Marsalis or another solid performance in the Bennedetti canon, but also something of a marketing win for Decca. In their 90th anniversary year I’ve struggled with the Decca narrative. They’re keen to celebrate their eclecticism, and seemingly desperate to emphasise their youth credentials. Some of the messaging around promoting Jess Gillam and Sheku Kanneh Mason has seemed a little obvious, for example; the content itself deliberately curated for mass appeal.

But this release feels like more of what I’d expect from the Decca brand: an exciting collaboration between two exciting creatives, aligning the work of a present-day jazz legend who knows how to create appealing new material with our most prized present-day UK classical musicians.

Nicola Benedetti’s recording of Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru is released on Decca on 12 July.